Mr. Bligh's Bad Language. Dening, Greg. 1992

Mr. Bligh's Bad Language. Dening, Greg. 1992

Dening, Greg.
Mr. Bligh's Bad Language.
Cambridge University Press.
ISBN 0-521-38370-6.

I'm ever on the lookout for material to submit for Cook's Log, and when I saw the title of the book Mr. Bligh's Bad Language, I thought that I might learn more about Cook's master on the third voyage. I found a goldmine in Greg Dening's carefully researched book. He is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Melbourne.

Captain Bligh's patron, Sir Joseph Banks, had a great deal to do with the renovation of the Bethia (later called the Bounty) making the plant nursery take precedence over crew's and officers' quarters. Perhaps the crowding of personnel was responsible for the eventual mutiny.

Bligh's bad language was more criticized than his tendency toward violence. Dening gives many examples of what was considered "bad" (page 56). In fact in 1805 Bligh was court-martialled for bad language long after the Bounty experience.
I enjoyed this quote concerning use of languages: "So if, at a later date, the loyal sailors of HMS Pinafore gave three hearty cheers and one cheer more for a captain who never, well, hardly ever, used a big, big D---, they were only acting out of a social satire that helped control sailors through the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries."

The author defends Bligh's degree of violence by comparing his flogging record with that of fifteen other British captains who were exploring the Pacific from 1765 until 1793. Cook's and Vancouver's flogging record showed much more severity than Bligh's.

Professor Dening takes us on Bligh's journey from the mutiny to his arrival at Portsmouth some ten months and fifteen days later, giving amazing details along the way. The descriptions of ducking, yarning and dancing aboard ship I found most illuminating.

The section "Dreams of perfect naval discipline" as expressed by Jonas Hanway was an amazing approach to creating disciplined sailors (pages 133-140). The chapter entitled "Sharks That Walk on the Land" presented an account of Cook's disastrous visit to Kealakekua Bay that I had not read about in such detail. The time of Lono called "makahiki" was explained.

The task of writing of the Pacific discoveries of Byron, Wallis, Carteret and Cook was given to John Hawkesworth, I had not realized what an effect such a publication had upon the English people. The scandals, negative criticism and bitterness was a great embarrassment to Joseph Banks and probably led to Hawkesworth's death.

Mr. Bligh's Bad Language by Greg Dening (Cambridge University Press) makes for fascinating reading.

John Dusel

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 1481, volume 21, number 1 (1998).

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